Morrissey, Palladium, London

Mr Miserable spreads joy
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The Independent Culture

Andrew Plender successfully bid to review a gig of his choice in The Independent's Christmas charity auction

The audience in the packed auditorium boo and holler. They stamp their feet in anger, and still he will not come. As the lights go up, 2,000 assorted apostles shuffle away bemused and frustrated, on this, the night when Steven wouldn't take a bow. Only Morrissey could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and still leave us feeling like we'd witnessed one of the most memorable gigs in an age: part pantomime, part football match, part love affair. How did it ever come to this?

Morrissey at The Palladium was a date that smacked of cosmic destiny. Could there be a more fitting venue for this performer? In such a setting he could be a Shakespearean board-treader, a Falstaff for whom if life is not a charade then "Life is a Pigsty", as he is to later sing in all its bombastic glory. Like few performers, he understands the essence and enigma of star persona, the power it holds, and that the space shared with fans is on a stage between our ears called the imagination. As such, he pulled out all of the stops to imbue this evening with the pomp and arch sense of occasion you'd expect from the man who posed as a virtuoso violinist for the album cover of the latest instalment of his renaissance, Ringleader of the Tormentors. No mere fiddler tonight, it was his chance to conduct.

Prior to his entrance, we were teased with a recording of "You'll Never Walk Alone", and the crowd responded, terrace-chanting his name: "Mor-rass-see, Mor-rass-see, Mor-rass-see-ee." Dressed head-to-toe in black and flanked by his self-styled Tormentors, he duly took centre-stage and with typical chutzpah quizzed, "Me? Why? Why?".

Morrissey opened with the breast-beating "You Have Killed Me", one of many of the songs from the new album given an airing tonight. Pacing the stage, pressing palms with his acolytes and preening what remains of his quiff, he gleefully declared, "And here I am, home at last". This sense of a spiritual homecoming was cemented by a choice performance of his signature tune, "How Soon is Now?", with its deliciously sardonic declaration: "I am the son and the heir of nothing in particular".

It was fitting that in this venue he delivered a variety show studded with crowd-pleasing sing-a-longs ("Still Ill"), end-of-the-pier frivolity ("Girlfriend in a Coma"), trademark yodelling ("In The Future When All's Well"), gushing sentimentality ("Trouble Loves Me"), and not a little humour in between: "Twenty years ago, I stood on this stage. None of you were here then. You were all listening to Phil Collins. But I forgive you."

But this being Morrissey, it's not all beer and skittles. "You're not really supposed to like those songs. They're very depressing and not supposed to be played on radio." So began his diatribe against the playlist pickers at Radio 1 who, having banned "Girlfriend in a Coma" two decades ago, have done likewise with his new single, the homicidal song-story, "The Youngest was the Most Loved".

His majesty was not amused. A rare expletive-laced outburst was tempered by a comic apology. "This is the Palladium, I can't swear here, Billy Dainty stood on this stage, Ken Dodd stood here, Danny La Rue was over there and Jimmy Krankie stood there." Having lost the sense of occasion, his mood-change was worthy of an operetta as he became increasingly self-conscious. "Does this sound horrible?" he asked, seeming to lose confidence in his voice (it was fine) or his hold on the audience (which never faltered). There was no encore.

It's apt that Morrissey, unfathomable to the last, is here sandwiched between productions of Scrooge and Sinatra, for the man is a surreal amalgam of the two, a kind of phantom of the pop opera. To err is human, and Morrissey is no stranger to disappointment: he's made a career singing, writing and living it.